Patterned after the Rolling Stones' four-DVD box set Four Flicks, Elton John's Dream Ticket packages together three concert videos and a career retrospective documentary. The scene setter is the first DVD, "One Night Only: The Greatest Hits Live," performed at Madison Square Garden on October 21, 2000, and originally the basis of a network TV special and a live album that followed quickly after. Appearing in a rose-colored jacket and wearing rose-colored glasses, John plays 27 songs over two and a half hours. A man with a detailed knowledge of what his greatest hits actually are (he frequently cites chart statistics), he chafes somewhat at the hits concept, noting that it will force him to play more ballads than usual and deliberately slipping in the occasional lesser hit, such as "Club at the End of the Street," to keep the pace lively. Half a dozen guest singers appear, and they are a mixed lot. Billy Joel ("Goodbye Yellow Brick Road") and closer Kiki Dee (her chart-topping duet with John, "Don't Go Breaking My Heart") are entirely simpatico with their host, and the crowd welcomes Bryan Adams ("Sad Songs [Say So Much]") and Mary J. Blige ("I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues"), even if they seem ill-suited to the material. John plays talent scout with Ronan Keating and Anastacia, both recently emerged European stars in 2000 who had not yet made their marks in the U.S. No one, of course, outshines the star, who is in his element playing his many warhorses of the early '70s and a smattering of the hits achieved afterwards. Director David Mallet seems obsessed with audience sweet shots of people singing along; there are so many of them, it becomes a leitmotif for the film. But it makes the point that this concert presents the popular Elton John, playing his most popular music before his biggest fans.
If the first disc is the "pop" Elton John, the second is Elton John with the "Pops," in the sense that he is joined by an orchestra and chorus drawn from students at his alma mater, the Royal Academy of Music, for a 64-minute show performed at the Royal Opera House in London on December 1, 2002. One might expect a preponderance of ballads in such a setting, too, and the expected ones turn up, including repeats of "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word," "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," and "Your Song," but more uptempo material, such as repeats of "Philadelphia Freedom" and "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" keep the audience, which is full of tuxedos and fancy dresses, awake and clapping along. From a stage full of musicians, the third disc features John alone, playing in the candlelit ruins of the Great Amphitheatre in Ephesus, Turkey, on July 17, 2001. But if this two-hour show is Elton John solo, it is not Elton John unplugged, exactly. It becomes clear as of the second number, "Someone Saved My Life Tonight," that his Yamaha grand piano is no simple acoustic instrument, but rather some sort of piano synthesizer capable of reproducing various keyboard sounds and some electronically created string sounds as well. So, for example, "Daniel," which follows, somehow has the familiar electric piano sound of the original recording. On his own, John is free to change the arrangements, and he inserts plenty of extra piano work, some of it quite forceful. The variations are welcome since the repertoire is by this point becoming over-familiar. John may not think of his usual concert set as a "greatest-hits" performance, but the three shows found here, recorded over a 25-month period, demonstrate that he prefers to play his favorites, no matter the context. It's easier to cite previously unplayed songs from the third concert (there are only four: "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters," "Honky Cat," "Nikita," and "Circle of Life") than ones that have been heard before, and "Your Song," "Philadelphia Freedom," "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word," and "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" get their third appearances in the package. The fourth disc, the 75-minute "Elton in Four Decades," provides a different perspective on some of those same songs. Twelve tracks, three hits each from the 1970s, '80s, '90s, and '00s, are spotlighted with interviews and performance footage. "Your Song" makes its fourth appearance via a collage of decades' worth of on-stage renditions, and that's the norm for the early selections. (Anyone wondering what happened to the wildly costumed and bewigged Elton John of the early years will be satisfied by the virtual fashion show that results.) As of the '80s, however, the songs tend to be represented by their music videos, which John expresses increasing reluctance to participate in. In the 2000s, Robert Downey, Jr. lip syncs "I Want Love," and Justin Timberlake portrays the young John in "This Train Don't Stop There Anymore." Bringing the film and the nearly seven hours of Dream Ticket to an end is a throwback, a video for "Are You Ready for Love" to commemorate the song's belated 2003 success in the U.K., after having been released at first in 1979. So John's most successful decade is stitched to the performer of the 2000s who dominates this lengthy and multi-faceted video portrait.